It wasn't all that long ago, in evolutionary terms, that there was no apparent need for positive emotions. Man was well equipped to survive using his smarts and his inherent negative emotions. Fear alerts us to danger. Anger triggers a response against intruders. Sadness lets us process loss.
Emotions in general are divided into four components:
And they pretty much occur in that order. In case of primitive man, it is clear how negative emotions served him well. He might first see, smell, or hear a large hungry animal or encounter a trespasser. His immediate feeling would be characteristic of all negative emotions: Aversion-fear, repugnance, revulsion, hatred. These strong feelings immediate narrow all thinking and focus to the specific threat where the decisive action component takes over: attack, run, or cover up.
Our negative emotions are essential in what psychologists call win-loss games. That's when the win is a total victory and a loss is a devastating defeat. A fight to the death is the ultimate example. Our ancient ancestors who passed on their genes were those who ran the fastest or fought the hardest in such a life or death struggle. Those devoid of negative emotions probably got eaten.
So when we are on alert, being negative, grieving loss, feeling anxious or despondent, or experiencing intolerance and narrow focus, we are compelled to lash out, get away, or go into a shell. It's a by-product of evolution.
What about positive emotions?
How did feelings of joy, confidence, hope, and trust contribute to our survival? Traditional study contended that it was merely froth. It is only really since the late 1990s that psychologists even took positive emotions seriously. That was when the ever-growing Positive Psychology movement was founded. Barbara Frederickson, researching at the University of Michigan, turned heads with her theory that positive emotions did serve human evolution by helping us to stop fending for ourselves and start gathering and creating community to broaden our reserves in case of threat and share what we knew to maximize opportunity.
Warm and ingratiating positive emotions are meant to signal we are facing a growth opportunity which allows us an open, tolerant, creative, and dynamic mindset. Throughout the course of human evolution these dynamic people were the ones to whom others naturally gravitated. They became the first leaders.
Dr. Erin Falconer also sees how the brain itself responds to positive thought:
So being happy brought us together and being together now makes us happy. Positive thought expands our possibilities and quite literally expands our minds.